Over the next five hours, the three young men greet all visitors to their corner like family. They pose with old friends for photos, sign their tags in admirers' sketchbooks, pass around the black three-ring binder filled with pictures of their work, and accept T-shirts and hats from the owners of hip-hop-wear companies who want them to design a clothing line.
"We never go out anymore," Nicer says, dropping a maraschino cherry in his champagne flute.
"Even a simple thing, like going to a party," Bio adds, "turns into business."
Business is booming for tats Cru. It has been seventeen years since they picked up markers and spray paint and began making their names, first as underage vandals in the Bronx, later as some of the best-known graffiti artists in New York, and most recently as Top Artistic Talent, Inc., commercial illustrators under contract to Coca-Cola, Reebok, and Seagram's Chivas Regal as well as a score of local advertisers. They won't say what they earned last year, but Nicer reveals that the Coke account alone is worth "five figures."
Commercial success aside, tats Cru's "fame," or respect, remains highest on their own turf, the South Bronx, and in the hip-hop community born there, which has shown up in force tonight. "This place isn't so scary, is it?" Bio asks, searching my eyes to see whether I feel out of place. In front of us, a mass of people -- mostly black and Hispanic, mostly male -- sways to the bass thump of Fat Joe's "Bronx Keeps Creatin'." A cloud of marijuana smoke floats overhead. To prove that I'm okay, I announce that I'm going to take a look around. Bio raises one eyebrow.
By the time I notice the man in the red down jacket, it's too late. He moves in for the kill, putting one hand around my shoulder and pulling me close; his breath hot and boozy, he asks me to dance, and his hand moves down and cradles my hip.
Instinctively, I shove him away, then cover my move with a lie. "You're going to get me in trouble with my boyfriend," I joke. My suitor narrows his eyes. "I don't see no trouble," he says. Taking a wild chance, I point toward tats Cru's corner. Romeo's eyes follow my finger . . . and widen. "You with Nicer?" he asks. "Girl, you gonna get me in trouble."
The latin quarter is five miles and worlds away from James Monroe High School, where Bio, Nicer, and BG -- who chose their tags simply because they liked the way they sounded -- met in an art class when they were still known as Wilfredo Feliciano, Hector Nazario, and Sotero Ortiz. They had been interested in art since they were boys, but it was the emergence of graffiti in the seventies that permanently grabbed their attention.
They spent their days in school and their nights "in one long artistic internship," hopping train turnstiles, crawling over fences, evading police on dark subway platforms. They called themselves the tats -- Tough-Assed Teenagers -- Cru and for the most part, the respect they earned on the street hinged on just how often, and how well, they could draw this tag on MTA property.
"You could paint a train here in the Bronx and it would go right to Brooklyn," says Nicer, 30. "It was like everybody in between was seeing your artwork because it was on a rolling canvas." By the early eighties, it was almost impossible to find a subway car free of what most New Yorkers regarded as, at best, an eyesore. "No matter what we did on the trains, we were considered vandals," says Bio, who is 31. He was arrested once or twice -- "It was terrible for my image," he claims, "but it didn't stop me" -- and sentenced to community service. Today, graffiti has achieved legitimacy, the "rolling canvases" replaced by billboards and tony galleries where the top aerosol artists are shown.
The van tats Cru uses to travel from job to job is pristine white. "It's to discourage vandalism," BG explains, without a trace of irony, from his perch on a box wedged between Bio and me, who occupy the van's two front seats.
Surrounding us, graffiti and stickers for rap artists cover the walls of the cab. Far in the back of the gutted van, almost lost amid hundreds of cans of spray paint, several ladders, and assorted rolled-up canvases, Nicer sits on a milk crate. We are flying down Hunts Point Avenue on a breakneck tour of tats Cru's art. All of it is in the South Bronx, and much of it is the only splash of color in sight. At Garrison Avenue, Bio careens around the corner, pointing out a mural on the side of a bodega advertising the South Bronx Film Festival. At the end of the street, the oversize faces of Tragedy and Comedy frame the entrance to Live From the Edge, a community theater. On Manida Street, a block-long mural featuring Big Pun, the rap artist and a friend of tats, announces the drug-free zone. A mural for a grocery store on Westchester Avenue features a beach scene, with a Coke logo for the sun. The first legal mural they painted was for an auto-parts store not far from here. "The reason we took the job was because we had no paint," Nicer recalls. "The owner said to take what we needed for the wall, but before we left we stole a lot more." Bio isn't proud of his actions, but he isn't exactly ashamed, either. "We did what we had to do," he says, "to get recognized."
Eventually they graduated from high school, got married, had children, went to trade school, and settled into full-time jobs. Nicer worked as an artist for an ad agency, designing perfume bottles for companies such as Elizabeth Arden and Clairol, and later opened his own business, detailing trucks and cars. Bio became a social worker with the National Puerto Rican Forum, counseling students and parents who had recently emigrated from Caribbean countries. BG worked as an engineer for ACME Steel Door Company, designing metal gates.
They never left the Bronx, and they never quit painting together. Working eighteen-hour days, five days a week, they built up a sign-painting business, creating outdoor advertisements for dozens of neighborhood bodegas, restaurants, and pool halls, as well as 50 memorial walls for friends and neighbors who had died, most often young and violently.
Four years ago, tired of his employee rolling into work on three hours of sleep, BG's boss gave him an ultimatum: Stop painting at night, or quit the day job.
"He never should have put that thought in my head," says BG, 34. Nicer and Bio had already quit their jobs, motivated in part, they say, by the desire to leave a legacy for their children. "Most artists leave a canvas or a sculpture, but our art was public property," Nicer says. "By forming a business, we thought we'd make something to leave them."
These days, there are several indications that their gamble has paid off: black-and-yellow business cards with the letters Inc. after their name; new offices at the Point, a community arts center in the South Bronx; an attorney to protect their copyright; and contracts with a number of big corporations to design graffiti-style ads in inner-city neighborhoods. In one recent month, they made an animated TV commercial for Reebok featuring Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson; participated in a two-week painting exhibition at the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta; and designed and painted outdoor signs for Ritmo Latino, a New Jersey-based music store, and for Fineman Furniture Co., a Harlem institution. They also taught art to 30 kids at the Point. Their work with Coke shows how far graffiti, and tats Cru, have come... and how far they have to go. They scout locations for Coke in Los Angeles and Atlanta as well as in New York, and paint murals with the Coca-Cola logo. The benefit to Coke is twofold: tats Cru's respect on the street adds value to the advertising -- and ensures that it will not be painted over by other graffiti writers. All this costs "very little money, really," according to Coca-Cola spokesperson Diana Garza.
Bio's face hardens when he discusses how Coke keeps their work in the ghetto. "It really bothers me," he says. "Of course, I want my art to get out there. I want it at 54th and Fifth." Conversely, the payoff for the work they do is not just in dollars: It has gotten them a foot in the door at a large corporation and the exposure that comes with it. He points out the holiday mural tats Cru painted for ABC's World News Tonight, which served as a backdrop for the show's closing credits. It took almost a day to paint, and it rained the whole time.
"Seven million people could see it," he says. But when I ask how much tats was paid for the mural, he won't meet my eyes. "We did it for free," he admits. Yes, they are, in a sense, being used by corporations. But it cuts both ways: "They use us and we use them," Bio argues. "We just try to get as much out of it as we can."
Joseph Sciorra, an urban folklorist and author of R.I.P.: Memorial Wall A.R.T., has been following tats Cru's work for ten years. "Corporate culture is constantly feeding off of popular culture," he notes. "The creepy thing with Coke is that they hire tats to work in the barrios, not on their national campaign."
Although Bio, Nicer, and BG live in the same neighborhoods they grew up in, "we pay our rent now," Nicer jokes. And they have money in their pockets. "Have you seen the new $50 bills?" BG asks me, peering into his wallet and giggling after paying a restaurant tab. "Don't they look just like food stamps?"
BG and his partners have big plans for the next few years: create a line of spray-paint cans with paint colors named after graffiti artists, such as Bio Blue; design a line of clothing; branch out into billboards; and maybe even produce a book of their artwork. "It's gonna take a long time for graffiti art to get its due," Bio says. "That kind of mainstream recognition might not happen to us. But it might happen for the next generation."
So for the past two years, Bio, Nicer, and BG have been holding free art workshops at the Point that attract children from as far away as Brooklyn. Part art teachers, part big brothers, they instruct the kids in the basics of art and counsel them on how to stay out of trouble.
"People ask me all the time if we've sold out, just because we don't bomb the streets anymore," BG says. "But you know what selling out would be to me? It would be to be in a position to teach these classes and to help people and to